Whale of a tale

Story and photos by Patricia Alisau


“Here comes Juanito,” someone shouted. All eyes turned towards the horizon as a calf swam closer to the boat. Its mother, all tuckered out from giving birth that day, kept him close as she edged him towards the panga. Then in what seemed like a nanosecond, the pair dove smoothly under the small craft, causing nary a ripple in the water. We were in western Mexico's Magdalena Bay, and the immediate kinship we felt with the mom ran to baptizing her babe on the spot with a name. Visiting the whale sanctuary on the Baja Peninsula was one of the most memorable and endearing sights of the trip.   

In between the cities of La Paz and Loreto, the Bay is one of three spots along the Gulf of California side of the Peninsula where the gray whales winter after migrating 5,000 miles from the frigid Arctic.  At any given time from December to April, the female adults are either nursing, calving or mating in its warm, shallow waters. And “honeymooning,” Jose, our boat caption announced, pointing to a couple frolicking in the water in the far distance.

By no means small at birth, the calves measure around 15 feet long and weigh several hundred pounds, eventually reaching several tons at maturity. It’s no wonder mariners of old dubbed them, “sea monsters.”  A classic example is the Herman Melville masterpiece, Moby Dick.  Melville, like the rest, claimed whales were formidable foes when, in truth, they are some of the most gentle and docile creatures of the sea. Curiosity will get the best of them when something like a panga appears in their waters, which draws them closer to investigate. And, on occasion, they have been known to swim up alongside and be petted.

Rustic and with loads of local flavor, the dock of the Bay is surrounded by independent panga guides, who also double as fishing guides, offering one- and two-hour excursions for six passengers at a time. Passengers are fitted with life jackets and the ride is calm. Handcraft stalls line the parking lot selling shark teeth, the famous carvings of seals and whales made of local ironwood, native damiana herbal tea said to be good for the digestion, sea shells and other souvenirs. Afterwards you can drop in for huge platters of fish and seafood at an unpretentious restaurant across the lot operated by the boatmen’s union.

Getting there: Magdalena Bay is located in the sparsely populated community of Lopez Mateos, off the Transpeninsular Highway. The Bay's two closest airports are in La Paz and Loreto, both served by Alaska Airlines from the U.S. Whale-watching excursions can be booked through several hotels in the two towns, from which it's about a two-hour drive from either one to the Bay. From Los Cabos at the tip of the Baja Peninsula it's a drive of around four hours.

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